What have we learned from the 20th century?

Tony Judt has a new article in the New York Review of Books about how the lessons of the past have come to be ignored by Americans today. What we do remember of the 20th century has become selectively commemorated as the victimhood of groups and people, with no overarching moral impediment: “The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nostalgo-triumphalist—praising famous men and celebrating famous victories—or else, and increasingly, they are opportunities for the recollection of selective suffering.”

It is the fact that Europe had to suffer from two devastating wars and a number of others during its loss of empire that makes the past resonate in its peoples’ conscience. America, on the other hand, is the only Western country to emerge from the 20th century relatively unscathed and the only one to see it in a more optimistic light. It is this difference that weighs heavily on the American willingness to use war as a way of achieving politics by other means, having not learned the terrible costs of what even a pyrrhic victory can bring.


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